The Justice Department is scooping up data from thousands of cellphones through fake communications towers deployed on airplanes, a high-tech hunt for criminal suspects that is snagging large number of innocent Americans, according to people familiar with the operations.
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The U.S. Marshals Service program, which became fully functional around 2007, operates Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population, according to people familiar with the program.
Planes are equipped with devices—some known as “dirtboxes” to law-enforcement officials because of the initials of the Boeing Co. unit that produces them—which mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information.